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This Japanese entrant aims to gatecrash the German-controlled executive saloon market in a way the GS could never manage

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If you’re a car maker aiming to intrude on the most firmly established fraternity in the automotive world, you had better have some substance to your product.

For the crimped metalwork of this week’s test subject, that comes in the form of a lineage stretching back six previous model generations. It was 1989 when Lexus introduced the ES 250 (for ‘Executive Sedan’), and in doing so created one of its first model ranges. Front-driven and powered by the 2.5-litre V6 from the Toyota Camry, the original ES set firm the mid-size saloon template for Lexus, with four-cylinder engines eventually introduced in 2010 and a hybrid option arriving a couple of years later.

Steeply raked C-pillars are pierced by a take on the ‘Hofmeister kink’ first seen on BMW saloons. The shape is a motif mirrored by the arrowhead daytime running LEDs beneath the headlights

Not that us Europeans would necessarily know as much, because this seventh-generation ES is the first of its line to be sold this side of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, as a nameplate it arrives with the weight of 2.3 million sales behind it and is fed into a stronger current of hype than Lexus has ever known outside Japan and America.

The marque’s European brand presence has doubled of late thanks to the Lexus NX crossover and, with the help of the excellent Lexus LC sports car, this refreshing and coherent design language has become more recognisable. These are good things because, if your aim is to take market share from the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 and Mercedes E-Class, it’s best that people know who you are.

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To stand a chance of meaningful success here, the car that Lexus supersedes the slow-selling GS will not only need to uphold Lexus’s reputation for creative interior design but match it with appreciable quality. Front-wheel drive means it will never lead the field for outright dynamism, but suspension fastidiously tuned for comfort, and precise driving controls, ought still to stand out.

With hybrid power, the new ES must be conspicuously efficient and, as a relative newcomer, it must also appear good value against its better-established foe. By implementing new drivetrain technologies and with the manufacturing economies gained from platform sharing, Lexus appears to have prepared well for the challenge. Today, we find out how convincing the ES is in execution.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Lexus ES

DESIGN & STYLING

Lexus ES 2019 road test review - front end

The most powerful ES in the car’s global range uses a 302bhp 3.5-litre V6, but in the UK this new model is to be available in ES 300h form only, with Lexus’s rather less potent fourth-generation Hybrid Drive system. That comprises a new 2.5-litre four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle DOHC engine – said to be the most thermally efficient production unit in the world, at 41% – paired with an economically packaged hybrid transaxle transmission.

The latter consists of an e-CVT, a smaller starter-generator motor and an 118bhp primary electric drive motor fed by a 245V nickel-metal-hydride battery that previously dwelt in the boot but now sits beneath the rear bench. All in, this powertrain delivers 215bhp and a combined 53.6mpg on the WLTP economy test cycle.

Pinched grille is expansive at its base and distances the ES from German rivals. Standard and Takumi models feature striking chrome bars, the F Sport gets a black crosshatch design

Lexus claims the ES now accelerates in more linear fashion by aligning engine speed with road speed, with Sport mode boosting torque at lower speeds. The awkward ‘rubber band’ effect of older hybrid drivetrains has been vanquished, they say, and there are paddles that shift through the car’s six simulated gears for a sense of involvement.

The car’s chassis shares some metalwork with that of the Camry, but other areas are different – as are the techniques used to join them. The all-new Global Architecture-K platform underpins both cars. MacPherson struts serve as suspension at the front axle with a new multi-link design at the rear, though modifications such as a V-brace behind the rear seats mean the ES’s body stiffness is alleged to match that of the Lexus LC coupé.

To improve stability, the ES’s suspension has seen increases in both castor angle and trail, and the angles of the struts are now also better aligned to absorb energy from road features. In addition, a new swing-valve shock absorber design (not fitted to the sportier F Sport models) is said to yield unprecedented comfort over even low-impact inputs.

These promising developments come in a package notably longer (65mm), wider (45mm) but lower (5mm) than the previous ES, though the car’s wheelbase still trails that of its principal rival – the Mercedes E-Class – by almost 70mm.

INTERIOR

Lexus ES 2019 road test review - cabin

This cabin isn’t one that leaves much to chance on apparent material quality or general fit and finish; nor could it afford to be under the circumstances we’ve already outlined.

You sit medium-high in the car, but have enough range of adjustment on the very comfortable, richly upholstered leather seat to have your thighs outstretched and well-supported by the extendable seat cushion. The steering column hasn’t quite got the telescoping range of adjustment needed for taller drivers to assume the perfect driving position, but only for the want of an inch or so’s travel – so your on-board comfort levels remain very high.

The drive mode selector and traction control knob look a bit odd. They remind me of a bar-shaped nose piercing. A modern Lexus is the last place you would expect to find a punk-rock vibe

You can’t but be impressed by the feel of integrity about the car’s major and minor fittings. You can lean as hard as you like on the elbow-high transmission tunnel without prompting the merest squeak from it, while you won’t find a loose or flimsy moulding or piece of trim anywhere around the car. Three-dimensional dark smoked chrome trim and dark ash wood veneers are used to fine effect as decoration, while the ES’s main design theme, just as in so many current Lexus models, is one similar to that of high-end hi-fi equipment.

You get more physical switchgear than you might in an equivalent Audi, Volvo or Mercedes, but much of it is stylised and – like the car’s volume knob itself and its heater controls – therefore quite enticing to touch. Instrumentation is conveyed by water temperature and fuel gauges of a good, readable size, alongside a central digital dial whose display function changes with selected driver mode. That you only get a rev-counter in Sport mode is a bit annoying, likewise that you can’t have an analogue-style speedometer at all. In the latter case, however, the car’s head-up display, which relays a digital speedo close to your line of sight, is very handy.

Storage is reasonable, although the car’s glovebox and armrest cubby aren’t quite as big as they look. In the second row, meanwhile, knee room is generous but head room is less so, while a highish floor and flattish cushion may leave larger adults feeling slightly cooped up.

Boot space is pretty average by class standards and, while our test car had a ski hatch for some through-loading, it didn’t have split-folding rear seatbacks – nor does any other trim of ES 300h. On several of those counts, it would be remiss not to penalise the car a little bit of credit for a practicality showing that isn’t quite what some executive saloon drivers will expect.

You would expect the ES to offer every digital gadget going, and of course our top-of-the-range Takumi car has got them all – 12.3in infotainment system, 17-speaker audio, colour head-up display, wireless phone charging pad, 360deg parking cameras – as standard.

On an entry-level ES 300h, you get an 8.0in infotainment set-up and 10-speaker audio. Mid-spec F Sport models can be upgraded with most of the car’s best tech, but it’s a £4000 package – and you can’t pick and choose items to bring that cost down. If you do splash the cash on the high-end systems, you will get a good factory navigation system and a stereo of impressive power and clarity, though the former presents place names in a font that can make them hard to read at a glance, and could provide better mapping detail.

Interfacing with the car’s various infotainment features can be anything from distracting to frustrating using only Lexus’s Remote Touch Interface touch-recognition pad. Familiarity may well moderate the pain, but won’t eradicate it.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Lexus ES 2019 road test review - engine

Lexus says its engineers toiled for three years to ensure the ES’s cabin made for a quiet and tranquil driving environment, using the flagship Lexus LS limousine as a benchmark. But when we road tested the LS last year, we found it wanting in some respects for refinement. The same is true for the smaller ES. At motorway speeds, it’s not engine noise you’ll notice in the cabin; the four-cylinder motor is very demure at a relaxed cruise.

But the by-product of this is that wind noise and tyre roar become more conspicuous. Not to the point of warranting serious criticism, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that at a 70mph cruise our sound gear recorded cabin noise at 65dB in the ES – making it no quieter than the Audi A6 Avant 40 TDI we tested in 2018. As for real-world performance and drivability, the hybrid powertrain is the usual mixed bag we’re used to from Lexus.

Dashing ES 300h can be best appreciated – from the driver’s seat and afar – when leaning on its hybrid powertrain’s 149lb ft electric motor in slow-moving town traffic

It’s at its most effective at urban speeds, when the electric motor’s 149lb ft of instantly available torque provides a useful initial punch of acceleration before the petrol engine wholeheartedly comes into play. It makes for a car that feels responsive and fairly light on its feet in traffic; one that’s capable of capitalising on gaps in between other cars when they present themselves.

Progress away from a standstill is seamlessly smooth, provided you’re gentle with your inputs. Adopt a more boorish or urgent approach, though, and things begin to unravel. Pace isn’t the real issue here – the Lexus hit 60mph from a standstill in a two-way average of 8.7sec (for comparison, the A6 managed 8.6sec).

But the e-CVT’s tendency to flare the combustion engine’s revs to dizzying heights on a wide-open throttle, and keep them there until you’ve come up to speed, remains a big alienating factor in the driving experience. If you’re accelerating from 30mph to 70mph, you’ll have to sustain the engine’s slightly coarse-edged drone for some 7.6sec, after which point you might find yourself questioning how suitable its application is in a comfort-oriented saloon.

As for stopping power, ventilated front and solid rear discs do a fine job of bringing the ES’s 1742kg mass to a halt, although there’s a slightly unnerving initial lack of resistance about the brake pedal that makes it harder to stop smoothly in traffic than it ought to be.

RIDE & HANDLING

Lexus ES 2019 road test review - cornering front

In ditching Lexus the rear-drive format of the old GS in favour of this new front-driven GA-K architecture, Lexus has clearly decided that its days of pitching its mid-sized executive saloon against the BMW 5 Series for driver appeal are behind it. There’s a resolutely unsporting sense of indifference about the way the ES goes down the road.

However, an effort has evidently been made to place distinguishing ride comfort and isolation at the forefront of the ES’s driving experience – and it’s not been wasted. At open-road speeds, the suspension deals with undulating surfaces in a calm and relaxed fashion; compressions are smoothly ironed out while upwards vertical travel over crests is kept closely, calmly in check. The same primary ride qualities are present when trundling along at town speeds, too.

Directional changes emphasise the Lexus’s mass. While you can feel the weight shifting about, you don’t get the sense that the front axle will press into understeer

However, without adaptive dampers in its suspension specification (these are saved for F Sport trim), the ES retains this softer edge when Sport mode is selected. The mode does add a degree of heft to the steering but, through faster bends, the car’s weight and comfort bias does make itself felt, and so the car never corners quite as neatly or tidily as some might prefer.

There’s more than enough front-end grip for the average road user, but you don’t have to be particularly enthusiastic with your corner entry speeds to entice the ES’s nose to begin to push on into understeer, before its electronic aids wake up to quell the phenomenon. That said, the steering is pleasingly accurate and consistent in its response, and you can at least feel through your fingertips the moment when your right toe has inadvertently given that driven front axle slightly too much to do.

The ES’s ability to deal with sharper lumps and ruts in the road could be slightly better; which, given the brief, is perhaps more of a disappointment than the aforementioned shortage of outright handling poise.

The car’s ride isolation is by no means poor but, around town and even at motorway speeds, the car’s suspension does struggle slightly with certain smaller imperfections, which find their way through to the cabin with the odd distant fiddle or shudder. So it’s a shame that such a sophisticated primary ride wasn’t combined with an equally impressive secondary one.

Despite having been tuned with a more comfortable style of motoring in mind, the ES 300h holds its own on Millbrook’s challenging Hill Route.

In Sport mode, the artificially weighty steering is reasonably confidence-inspiring, making it easy to allow the car to flow between bends. But at all times, you’re aware that it has a limited amount of outright lateral grip and traction and, because of the front-wheel drive, you’re often trading one for the other.

And so, while there’s no alarming shortage of front-end grip, you don’t have to push too hard to reach the limit of the Dunlop Sport Maxx 050’s grip – at which point the ES’s electronic stability systems step in with a fairly heavy hand.

The ES 300h’s weight makes itself felt on track. While body roll around the lateral axis is impressively progressive, you constantly feel like you’re at the wheel of a rather portly car; which isn’t true in outright terms, of course.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Lexus ES 2019 road test review - hero front

One of Lexus’s main motivations in swapping GS for ES in Europe was the opportunity to be more aggressive with pricing – and it has opened up the books as you would expect.

The high-looking price of our fully loaded Takumi test car, on which the only available cost option is metallic paint, is a bit of a red herring. An entry-level ES 300h will cost you over £1000 less this year than an equivalent GS hybrid would have in 2016.

High level of standard spec contributes to Lexus’s competitive residuals against PHEV rivals

Move up to mid-range F Sport trim and the ES is cheaper than its predecessor by almost £5000, and undercuts a nearest-equivalent Audi A6 40 TDI S Line S tronic by a not dissimilar figure. With more margin in the ES to allow dealers to cut a finance deal Lexus than the GS ever had, impressive residuals forecast and low associated benefit-in-kind tax, buyers can expect this to be an attractive option in value-for-money terms.

Running costs for the car should be strong, too. Our test car returned 48.8mpg on our habitual touring fuel economy test, where a current BMW 520d returned 52.4mpg in 2017.

Balanced against relative gains for the ES in heavier traffic and around town, it should certainly be frugal in everyday use.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Lexus ES

VERDICT

Lexus ES 2019 road test review - static

The Lexus ES makes a sharp-looking, well-equipped and appealingly priced contender in what is a highly competitive European executive saloon segment.

But, while it’s the sort of car you can imagine selling Lexus a lot better than the old GS on this continent, it will do so for entirely different reasons – and it doesn’t have the rounded, multi-faceted appeal that might have turned it into a truly dominant force here.

The boldly styled, economical ES has a singularly rational but dry character

It’s short on the driver appeal that elevates our favourite mid-size executive saloons to the top of the class: that much we saw coming. But, while the car maintains a strong focus on comfort and refinement instead, this too can be undermined by a powertrain that at times wants for civility and drivability, and a ride that occasionally yields to over-excitement.

The result is a saloon that only really feels truly at home in heavy traffic or the urban sprawl, where the seventh-generation ES not only rides well, but the hybrid powertrain is also at its smoothest and most frugal. Most business saloon buyers, we suspect, want and expect a broader base of ability.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Lexus ES

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Lexus ES First drives